Ballerinas 'Train' their Brains

By Alice Orszulok

Ballet dancers may hold the secret to spinning without getting dizzy.

Ballet requires an enormous amount of skill—and many years of practice. In this time, ballerinas complete countless numbers of pirouettes, a dance movement that requires the dancer to make a full turn of the body on their toes or the ball of her foot. All this spinning around is bound to make anyone dizzy, but not these dancers. Researchers hope that by finding out more on how ballerinas are able to spin without getting dizzy, they will be able to treat patients with chronic dizziness.

“Ballet dancers seem to be able to train themselves not to get dizzy, so we wondered whether we could use the same principles to help our patients,” said Dr Barry Seemungal at Imperial College London in a statement.

The feeling of dizziness is connected with the vestibular organs in the inner ear. This area is filled with fluid and the walls are covered with tiny hairs. Each of these hairs is connected to a nerve cell that carries signals to the brain. When the head moves, the fluid sloshes around and bends the hairs. As each hair bends, it makes its nerve cell send a signal, telling the brain about that movement. When we spin around, the fluid starts spinning, too. That gives us the sensation of spinning. When we stop, the fluid keeps moving, and keeps sending signals to the brain, making us feel like we are still moving, or moving backwards.

To see how ballerinas respond to this process, researchers recruited 29 female ballet dancers and spun them around in a chair in a dark room. When the chair was stopped, the dancers were asked to turn a handle in time with how quickly they felt like they were still spinning. They also measured eye reflexes—the quick flicking of the eyes from moving around rapidly. They found that the ballerinas’ eye reflexes and their perception of spinning didn’t last as long as it did in people that didn’t dance.

MRI scans then revealed differences in two parts of the ballerinas’ brains: the cerebellum, the area involved with processing signals from the inner ear, was smaller than usual, meaning it reduces the flow of signals from the inner ear to the brain, acting like a gate; and the cerebral cortex, which is associated with the perception of dizziness.

“It’s not useful for a ballet dancer to feel dizzy or off balance. Their brains adapt over years of training to suppress that input. Consequently, the signal going to the brain areas responsible for perception of dizziness in the cerebral cortex is reduced, making dancers resistant to feeling dizzy. If we can target that same brain area or monitor it in patients with chronic dizziness, we can begin to understand how to treat them better,” explains Dr Seemungal.

Ballerinas aren’t the only ones who have managed to ‘train’ their brains . According to a study conducted by University College London, taxi drivers have a larger hippocampus than a regular person, since they’re made to remember all the winding streets of the city of London. You can read more about it here.

Source [Science Daily

Keyword [Vestibular System]

The vestibular system is the sensory mechanism in the inner ear that detects movement of the head and helps to control balance.